[Readers please note that Muslims are required to say "sallallahu alayhi wasallam", a prayer for Allah's blessing, after every mention of the Prophet Muhammad's name. It is also customary to say "subhanahu wa ta'ala", an utterance of glorification and praise, after mentioning the name of Allah. In this article the abbreviations 'saws' and 'swt' have been used to remind the reader of this obligation.]
'Success', 'progress' and 'perfection' are three inseparably related and crucially important terms in our life. It would be no exaggeration to say that all our thinking, actions, judgments and feelings are controlled by our definition of these three terms. Everything in life is bound to go wrong if our understanding of these key terms is confused, and thus it is essential that we carefully examine our definitions of success, progress and perfection.
As Muslims we must always first look for guidance in Islam in every big or small matter of our life. There is no room for our own private view when guidance is available, still less for what is constantly offered us by clever and manipulative people such as politicians and advertisers. Alluring and abundant as such competing views may be, the Muslim must only turn for instruction in these vital matters to Allah (swt) and His Noble Messenger Muhammad (saws). Here and here alone is reliable guidance.
'Success' is a frequent and key term in the Qur'an. The call of Islam, in fact, is a call to success. Again and again Allah (swt) invites all human beings to success, making it clear what success really is and how we can achieve it. What Allah says in the Qur'an has been elaborately and clearly explained and put into practice by His Messenger Muhammad (saws). The Muslim has been left in no confusion or uncertainty in this regard.
True success lies in a person's gladly accepting divine guidance and sincerely striving to live according to it. This is what is meant by staying on the straight path, the sirat-al mustaqim and this is what has been made the object of our required daily prayers to Allah.
The Qur'an also clearly details the qualities of the people who are successful in the sight of Allah (swt). Three important names given to these people in the Qur'an are mumin, muttaqi and sadiq. Allah wants us to bear these qualities in mind at all times to ensure that we strive to attain them and evaluate ourselves in their light. Only thus can our safe journey to success be ensured. If one wishes to find all the qualities of the successful at its best in one human being, one need only to turn to Muhammad (saws), standing at the pinnacle of success and holding high its banner.
Not everything that appears to be success is really success. The Qur'an draws our attention to this and points out where and how human beings take the route to failure and loss. They do this, the Qur'an tells us, through ignorance of, indifference to, or willful disregard of the true perspective in which to see this world: they fail to realize the true nature of this life, and so this fleeting life seems too attractive and this ephemeral world too solid. A terrible blindness sets into the heart and nafsi ammara (our base self of desires and impulses) overthrows our noble self. Everything is turned upside down. We begin to exchange truth for falsehood and beneficial things for harmful ones. This is what Allah (swt) says in Surah Al-A'la: "Nay, behold, ye prefer the life of this world: But the Hereafter is better and more enduring." (87:16-17). And the same point was made by the Prophet (saws) when he said, "The Fire is surrounded by desires and Paradise is surrounded by hardship" (Bukhari, Muslim). This does not mean, of course, that the Muslim is required to deliberately seek hardship, quite the contrary, but he will inevitably face difficulties of various sorts throughout his life as a Muslim and must always be prepared to sacrifice something temporary for something permanent.
The Muslim has two safeguards to prevent him from making harmful choices. One is to constantly remember Allah in all His Power and Glory. The other is to remember our own approaching death and the Hereafter. Life as we now know it will come to an end and an eternal life will begin, a life of eternal joy or eternal sorrow. Our fate in the Hereafter will be decided by the life we chose to live in this world. The accounting in the Hereafter will be unimaginably thorough and clean; there will be no escape. Paradoxically, human beings are prone to forget their own impending death; perhaps this is why the Prophet (saws) urged us to visit the graveyards frequently.
Call to mind what Allah and His Noble Messenger have told us about this life being a constant test in different circumstances. We are tested equally with joy and sorrow, ease and hardship. Other than in three situations - sleep, loss of consciousness and insanity - there is not a moment in our life when we are not being tested by Allah. At the same time Allah and His Noble Messenger have told us, in ample detail and perfect clarity, how to pass the test.
Talking of this life as a test, we can recall two defining moments in the life of Muhammad (saws). One was in the most difficult days of his mission as a Prophet in Makkah when the leaders of the Quraysh offered him all the attractive things one could cherish in this life. The other was toward the end of his life when Allah offered him continued life with all the treasures of the world. We all know what his responses were in both cases. He refused the Quraysh's offer of worldly wealth and power in exchange for giving up his preaching. (He responded by reciting the first 37 ayahs of Surah 41, Ha Mim Sajdah.) And in the second choice, he preferred to die and meet his Lord rather than accept the offer of immortality in this world followed by Paradise (as documented in Ibn Ishaq). It was Muhammad's (saws) concept of success that determined his responses.
Another word that seems to cast a magic spell on us is 'progress'. While success relates to the individual, progress relates more to the society at large. We want progress because we expect it to facilitate our success as individuals, by providing a conducive environment. Our notion of progress naturally follows our idea of success.
For the Muslim, then, progress is whatever aids and inspires him to achieve the supreme success by staying on the sirat-al-mustaqim and helps him attain the pleasure of Allah, for which he lives and dies. Whatever distracts or hinders him from this can have no place in his definition pf progress.
The Muslim cannot lose sight of the distinction between physical comforts and the essential goal of life. Physical comforts and other amenities of life are what the Qur'an calls 'conveniences' in this life, desirable up to a point and to be used with proper caution, but of no real or lasting value. While some conveniences can be put to the service of attaining the true goal of life, there are others that only lead to permanent damage. The Muslim needs to be discriminating in his choice of them.
Finally, we have 'perfection'. For the Muslim, again, his view of perfection is inseparably linked to his view of success. Of the many kinds of perfection that human beings might pursue, there is only one kind of perfection that is worthwhile. It is the perfection of his iman and 'aml, perfection of himself - his thoughts, feelings and deeds. In other words it is the purification of his soul. For the Muslim, the perfection that really matters has already been achieved in the past and it is firmly fixed. It is unlike technological 'perfection' that is constantly being surpassed. The sensible Muslim looks to the past for perfection, confident in his knowledge that the unchanging model for all human beings is in the person of Muhammad (saws). The Muslim has to live with his Prophet, just as the Companions (radi-Allahu anhum) did in their time.
The Muslim cannot accept whatever he likes or anything that is on offer. We must remember that even though everyone is using the same terms we do not necessarily mean the same thing. We must examine and re-examine our notions in the clear and sure light of the Qur'an and the Sunnah. Otherwise, we will be the worst of losers, whose regret is immeasurable. And that is why alertness is an essential quality for us; we can never let down our guard against the whisperings of our baser self and of our old and sworn enemy Shaytan-ur-Rajeem.
A. K. M. Mohiuddin is a retired university professor of English literature living in Bangladesh. He can be reached at this address: akmm45 [at] yahoo [dot] com